Academic journal article Capital & Class

'Standing the Gaff': Immiseration and Its Consequences in the De-Industrialised Mining Communities of Cape Breton Island

Academic journal article Capital & Class

'Standing the Gaff': Immiseration and Its Consequences in the De-Industrialised Mining Communities of Cape Breton Island

Article excerpt

'People suggest that regions collapse, but they don't. It's a long drawn out process that is inevitably downward.' (Senior administrator, CBRM)


In his reaffirmation of Marx's concept of immiseration, Trotsky offered a sociological caveat to its predicted outcomes: that the sharpening of the contradictions between the classes would not be sufficient in themselves to produce revolutionary social change. The responses of the degraded class would be contingent upon the social, political and historical conditions shaping the working class's experience and understanding of immiseration--what he defined as 'the concrete historical conditions' (1938: 54). The availability of social and political leadership offering feasible alternative forms of social organisation would also be central to this revolutionary process.

Since the re-emergence of neoliberal governments in the 1980s, we have seen major declines in primary industries, increased levels of long-term unemployment, a reduction in the social protections available to workers (Espring-Anderson, 2004), and an increasingly embattled and declining trade union movement (Kelly, 1998). Despite critical voices (Strachey, 1956; Galbraith, 1998; Fukuyama, 2006), we believe that the economic and social realities of de-industrialisation are such that that the concept of immiseration remains a useful theoretical framework. This has been recognised elsewhere: in his forward to Braverman's (1974) seminal work, Sweezy talks of immiseration thus: 'far from being the egregious fallacy which bourgeois social science has long held it to be, [it] has in fact turned out to be one of the best founded of all Marx's insights into the capitalist system' (1974: xii).

It is our belief that Marx's concept of immiseration continues to have relevance to the understanding of the consequences of de-industrialisation, particularly in geographically isolated, single occupational communities created to serve the needs of extractive industries. The now redundant mining communities of New Waterford, Sydney Mines and Glace Bay, all located within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada, will be the case-study focus of this claim. The economic, social and political conditions of de-industrialisation have clearly imposed an identifiable process of immiseration on these populations. However, in contrast to Marx's prediction of a radical response, we identify historical, social, political and economic conditions which, intensified by spatial isolation, have proved to be significant barriers to a collective class based response.


This research project, covering the years 2005 to 2009, was designed to identify the enduring consequences of de-industrialisation in the isolated mining communities of Cape Breton Island. Taking a longitudinal view, we sought to identify how the closure of the mines impacted over time, allowing us to present an in-depth evaluation from the perspective of a range of individuals living and, in some cases, working in the case-study communities. The three communities in the case study were chosen because they were domicile to the largest number of miners in the declining years of the coal industry in Cape Breton. This longitudinal case study approach allows the researcher to examine how significant events, and their consequences, develop over time (Kitay and Callus, 1998).

Throughout the research, qualitative data was collected through interviews with a broad section of individuals living or working in the case-study communities. In order to gain a wide range of views, we approached individuals offering opinions from different perspectives. The members of the first group were chosen for their positions within the administration of the CBRM: they were councillors (3); the mayor of the CBRM; the MP representing the case-study communities in the regional government of Nova Scotia; and senior administrators in the CBRM bureaucracy (2). …

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